Ayn Rand world: streets and roads

Statue of Atlas, that became the cover illustration for Atlas Shrugged. Is the Third Option a variation on this theme?
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In the Ayn Rand world, some say, no one would plow, repair, or otherwise keep up public roads. Bridges might fall unless someone, acting out of public spirit or rational self-interest, keeps them up. But neither thing would happen. Instead, in the set-up of the Ayn Rand world, people would buy the streets, roads, highways, bridges, and so on, and run them like businesses. And most people forget that America, and England too, once had private roads.

The Ayn Rand theory of public property

Ayn Rand told Alvin (Future Shock) Toffler that private persons and private companies should own and keep up all streets and roads. The government, she said, should worry only about using force when it had to, against those who wrongfully use force against others. That’s what police, armies, and law courts are for.

Obviously she never said that people would neglect to plow the streets in the winter, or keep bridges up. So why would anyone think that they would? Because they forget that public streets, roads, and bridges do not spring into being out of nothing. Someone builds them.

History of road building

For most of human history, governments built roads. Kings and emperors built the most famous and longest-lasting roads. Ancient Rome’s roads are the most famous.

All roads lead to Rome.

Those roads did not come out of nothing. Roman magistrates built the first of Rome’s roads. For much of their history, local townsfolk kept up the roads that passed through their towns. At other times, an ambitious Roman Senator (e.g., a young Julius Caesar) would volunteer to keep up a road. Keeping a long road in good repair earned him votes. That system hasn’t changed much since then. Details have changed, but fundamentals have not.

But people have almost completely forgotten that private enterprise and private initiative once played prominent roles in road-building. The Industrial Revolution in England might never have been, except that several Turnpike Trusts formed to build long-haul roads in England. In America, the first good long-haul roads were also private turnpikes. The first of these was the Lancaster Turnpike in southeastern Pennsylvania.

More recently, Murray Rothbard (no friend of Ayn Rand), in For a New Liberty (1973), wrote the most comprehensive treatment yet of how to build, run, and price roads privately.

Who would own the roads?

First, the phrase private road here means only a road that someone other than a government owns. Today a “private road” is usually a road that someone not only owns, but closes to the public. But in the Ayn Rand world, all roads would be private, but most would be open to the public.

As Rothbard suggested, two kinds of people might own a road. Homeowners (or apartment owners, condo declarants, etc.) might build (or buy) and run the streets that their properties open onto. Business owners might do the same. The road would be their way of getting in and out, and bringing in customers, trash collectors, plumbers, electricians, and anyone else who might need to drive in. So all the owners would form an association and put it in charge of keeping up the street or road (or segment of it), plowing it when it needs it, and so on. They would even guard it against street crime. (Office buildings usually have their own security forces; so would these roads.)

To connect villages, towns, and cities over long distances, or to help farmers get their goods to market, needs a longer road, or a highway. Separate companies could build those. (The English Turnpike Trusts and American turnpike companies played this role.) Those companies would also build bridges, either separately or as part of a larger highway system.

Rules of the road

Few people seriously suggest that driving would become a right, instead of the privilege it is today. The private companies (or associations) who owned the streets and roads would likely set the same rules that governments do today. That includes licensing drivers, setting traffic signals and signs, and posting speed and load limits. All those rules exist today, and no one would have much incentive to set radically different rules. Speed and load limits depend on how safe a given road is to drive, or how heavy a load a bridge can hold up. But rules like what side of the road to drive on, and what color signal means “stop” or “slow down” or “go,” would likely stay the same for all.

Even if roads had begun as private roads, those who owned and kept them would still set the same rules. The railroads did, after all. And Rothbard also points out that the railroads first set up the time zones that Americans use today.

How to pay for roads

Statue of Atlas, that became the cover illustration for Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

A statue of Atlas, that became the cover illustration for Atlas Shrugged

As Ayn Rand said to Alvin Toffler in that famous interview, private companies would run roads far better than the government does. Rothbard agreed. And governments (at all levels) still have the same problems with keeping up roads, and paying for that upkeep, that they always have had.

Someone always pays for using a road. On some long highways, drivers pay tolls. But drivers also pay federal and State taxes on motor fuel (gasoline or No. 2 Diesel). The next time you see a sign that reads

Your Highway Taxes At Work

remember that the sign is talking about motor-fuel taxes.

Rothbard noticed two problems:

  1. Most tolls are exactly the same at all hours of the day, and all days of the week. No matter how crowded, or lonely, the road is, the toll is the same.
  2. Drivers pay motor-fuel taxes by how much fuel they use, no matter what streets or roads they drive on.

So how do the authorities decide where to spend those taxes? Usually they wait until enough people complain about potholes and other problems. And when the Big Names With Pull start complaining, the authorities will repair their favorite roads first. Everybody knows that, and everybody complains about that. The Ayn Rand world wouldn’t have that problem.

Toll road authorities would at least have a source of funds that comes from those who use their roads. But when they charge the same amount at all hours and days, they give people no incentive (or at least, no financial incentive) to drive some other time, or take a bus. (Rothbard didn’t think that commuter trains could pay for themselves, but he thought that buses might.) So streets and highways turn into parking lots!

In the Ayn Rand world, those who owned the roads and highways that got the most traffic, would charge extra during times of high demand. Very quickly, travelers would solve the problem of how to get from Point A to Point B at the lowest cost. Buses could turn a profit easily, and more people would use them. “Congestion tolls” would help strike a balance that would keep traffic moving. Or if that balance did not strike soon, someone would build more roads. (Or in the extreme case, they might lay rail.)

Homeowners’ and landlords’ associations would be a special case, of course. Residential streets mostly need cleaning and plowing. But one memorable case should convince even the most insistent “public” advocate that something is wrong with public streets today. In the winter of 2010, snow fell so thick in New York City that many residents could not get to the roads, because no one bothered to plow their streets. In the Ayn Rand world, the homeowner’s association would make sure that people could get out, if they had to organize all the residents into a shovel brigade. Instead of one central authority, typically catering to the Big Names With Pull, every street would have someone speaking for it and for those who own property that fronts it.

The subsidy problem

Oddly enough, the same people who complain about what the Ayn Rand world would mean for public roads, also say that the government has built too many of them. And equally oddly, Murray Rothbard agreed with that. Rothbard held that workday commuters had the heaviest subsidies of any group of government stakeholders. And subsidies, of any kind, would be another thing that the Ayn Rand world would not have. In that world, no one would build any more streets or roads than the economy needed.

Better yet, no one would use eminent domain to build a road. Never again would a government seize property for that use, or any other. Private companies, in a proper world, would not have the power of eminent domain. (Can anyone defend eminent domain, after a city government used it to take someone’s home and give it to a drug company, who ended up not using the land at all?)

Ayn Rand valued private property at least as much as she did letting anyone in business take his own risk. Suddenly the Ayn Rand world looks a lot more attractive.

This article is part of the Ayn Rand world series.

Editor-in-chief at | + posts

Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

22 Responses to Ayn Rand world: streets and roads

  1. […] ~ "Ayn Rand world: streets and roads" ~ GA_googleFillSlot("TaurusArmed-300P"); ~ "Conservative news & Views" ~ "Would people neglect public roads and highways in an Ayn Rand world? No. People would own and keep up those roads, as they once did" Ayn Rand world: streets and roads – Conservative News and Views […]

  2. MDB says:

    First, I always find your adoration of Ayn Rand to be extraordinary, considering she was a vociferous atheist.

    That aside, you’re arguing for homeowners’ associations to take on some of the government’s current role with streets and roads? The same groups that tell people “you can’t widen your driveway/paint your house that color/put up a satellite dish/have a birdfeeder”? (Yes, I did actually see a condo owner’s association prohibit birdfeeders once. Someone didn’t like hearing chirping birds.)

    Seriously, how is an HOA different from a government? I suppose you could argue that it’s voluntary, but really, how “voluntary” are most of them? If you buy an existing house, and it’s in an area with an HOA, your contracts and deed and such probably requires membership. It collects taxes in the form of dues. It’s got officials in the form of the busybodies who write you a citation if the grass is too high or whatever. Etc etc etc.

    HOA’s often end up being petty little dictatorships indistinguishable from any form of government. How can that be a libertarian point of view?

    • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

      HOAs, whatever their faults, do not have guns to back them up. Political authorities do. That’s the difference.

      • MDB says:

        Don’t they?

        Spring Valley (near Columbia, SC) has a private security force. http://www.springvalleycolumbiasc.com/amenity.asp?id=3 In that state, they do have police powers.

        Now, to be fair, I can’t find whether they armed or not. But really, if you’re hiring a police force, you have become, for all intents and purposes, a government.

        • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

          Your definition of a government is much broader than mine. To carry the title of “government,” an entity must be an internationally recognized nation-state or a political subdivision of same.

          • MDB says:

            An HOA may not be a government by definition, but it still has the potential to act as oppressive as any government.

            This is the point and and most libertarians often miss — government is not the problem; POWER is the problem. And in any society but the absolute smallest, something is going to get power, and will effectively become a government.

          • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

            Quibbles. Quibbles, quibbles, quibbles.

      • DinsdaleP says:

        “HOAs, whatever their faults, do not have guns to back them up. Political authorities do. That’s the difference.”

        Yes, but in your ideal world, everyone would be armed per their Second Amendent rights, as a check against government overreach and criminals having guns. Hope they serve decaf at the association meetings.

        Okay, on a less sarcastic note, the idea of all roads being privatized has a few basic, practical flaws:

        -It assumes that the road owners can collect revenues from the users of their roads without causing massive congestion as drivers pass from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Fuel taxes were designed to connect revenue to consumption without impeding the actual flow of transit. When you move to a balkanized pay-per-use model, any collection involving multiple physical payments as one drives is a logistics nightmare.

        – It assumes that all parties along a roadway will fully, willingly contribute their fair share of funding and support. When someone doesn’t, are they going to be barricaded from the roads?

        – It creates bureaucracies where none exist. I live on a stretch or semi-rural road in Middlesex County, NJ, along with homeowners, some small farmers, and people who own large, undeveloped lots that keep the character more wooded than not. This road also has a bridge over train tracks that probably requires periodic engineering inspections, and someday will require expensive maintenance. At present I pay taxes based on my property and the degree to which it’s developed, and the town maintains the road for me. In your model, everyone on this road has to create a HOA, track down the absentee owners of the vacant land, and work out a maintenance & ownership agreement everyone will accept. Quite a hassle considering we need to do none of this today – it’s a service funded by our tax dollars. We’d also never have had this bridge, because the cost only makes sense when spread over a county’s capital budget, not over a handful of property owners. Without the bridge, though, the frequent train traffic would cause incredible delays, especially during rush hour when both trains and school buses are running most frequently.

        – It ignores the complications created for utilities trying to plan and execute water/sewer/power/cable/etc. maintenance.

        – It ignores the possibility that individual property owners can let their section of a road fall into such disrepair that it’s impassible, devaluing the investment of everyone else on their sections of the same road.

        – It ignores the practical reality that we wouldn’t have had today’s interstate highway system if it weren’t for central government planning, investment and unfortunately, the selective use of eminent to drive progress. I’m against the use of eminent domain in all but the most absolutely necessary cases, and this was one of them. The private sector came up with nothing comparable in the prior 40 years, and Eisenhower realized that having such a system was not just an economic priority, but one of national security.

        Now if you want to talk about interesting areas to take back into a semi-private model, the energy grid would be a better case. If we can invest nationally in a smart grid infrastructure for distribution, we open the door for individuals to both consume and produce energy, and to efficiently buy and sell it in an open market. The building blocks are there, but we need to invest in a grid that breaks the dependency on legacy producers and their “push only” model.

        • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

          If you followed through to my sources, you’ll see that Rothbard, even long before anyone even heard of GPS, thought about highly sophisticated odometers and transponders to help with such tracking. Haven’t you ever heard of EZ Pass? Several quasi-independent toll authorities use EZ Pass right now to track tolls. Some EZ Pass stations will log you even as you drive at 55 miles per hour (about 90 kph).

          The rest of what you mention are, quite simply, quibbles. Regular users of any road can always work out a monthly or annual pass system. In fact, the utilities would pay the road companies for the right-of-way, anyway. Naturally the road people would give the utility men a pass to take care of their own equipment.

          But you’re living in a world in which the government handles just about everything that you don’t get from a brick-and-mortar store, or maybe order on-line. The only thing the government doesn’t handle, so far, is telephony. Maybe you want that to be next.

          I would be glad to take the chance on “no Interstate system.” In that world, the railroads would still be handling the long-haul freight, and the airlines and the bus lines would still handle passenger traffic. Time was when we got on the bus to visit relatives. Now…remember an outfit called Continental Trailways? Sadly, they couldn’t hang on. But maybe if the government hadn’t distorted the market…!

          • MDB says:

            You’d take your chances doing without the Interstate system?

            You realize, of course, that part of the reason for it is national defense? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcontinental_Motor_Convoy#1920_Motor_Transport_Corps_convoy)

            Imagine your world of private roads. What incentive does anyone have to maintain a road capable of handling, say, a truck hauling a few pieces of heavy artillery? That requires some pretty heavy duty paving. And even if we rebuilt the rail infrastructure, you’re going to have to have some roads. Rail isn’t efficient enough to get everywhere.

            Or suppose I own a road and I’m opposed to the current military policy. Can I say “nope, can’t move those troops on my roads, find another way, Sarge.”

            For that matter, could I establish a haven for criminals by prohibiting the police from my private road?

          • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

            I have heard certain criticisms of the national-defense rationale for the Interstate System. Among other things, maybe you’ve heard that some of the heavy equipment the Army uses can’t clear the viaducts.

            If the Army has a problem moving equipment over land, that’s what the Air Mobility Command is for, as you very well know, or ought to know.

            In short, this is another quibble. The solution always would be a contract with the Army. And I thought that progressives hated defense contractors.

          • DinsdaleP says:

            I don’t have enough time to reply to all your points, but here are a few comments:

            EZ Pass works because expensive readers with video backup systems are installed at toll places. There’s no economic viability to install that level of hardware plus the power and internet hookups on a street by street or block by block basis.

            As for GPS Tracking, I’m rather surprised that someone like you would advocate a system as being “pro liberty” that also includes mandatory tracking of my every move in my car by strangers. It also requires the sharing of that data through at least on network of middlemen to make sure that the passage of my car over a certain road is reported to the owners of that road for billing purposes. I’d rather pay a gas tax and have my travels with that gas take place without anyone having to know where I go and when.

            What you refer to as “quibbles” are more accurately the practical constraints of making your idea work in reality. We could also be mining helium-3 for energy off the moon today, if it weren’t for the “quibbles” in the way.

            You show a deliberate ignorance of how people would use free-market economics for their self-interest if each of us controlled access to our respective pieces of the roads in front of our property. If a utility negotiated access to lay a new cable line across all segments of a road but one, that last holdout could demand much better terms than the rest as the price for allowing the work to complete. In an Ayn Rand world that’s an entirely rational behavior, but one that, when multiplied across regional scales, creates gridlock and brinksmanship instead of predictable, efficient progress on utility projects.

            I don’t want government to handle telephony or any other endeavor like that, but government has a proper role i the process for the benefit of all involved. Take spectrum management and licensing. In your world the government would have no ability to restrict spectrum use, letting the free market find the best uses for any given band. In practice that’s not going to work, though, since access tends to have to be exclusive for most technologies to work without interference. Just because I can invent a better gadget doesn’t mean I can take over a spectrum, or buy it out and park it to cut out competition.

            As for your desire to forego the Interstate system, feel free to live in the 1940’s and earlier if you want, but most people prefer progress. Railroads only go as far as the tracks, you still need to drive to airports. Bus companies don’t take the local roads by choice either – those long-haul bus trips you’re find of take place on Interstate highways whenever possible. Try spending a few months avoiding the use of any Interstate, and you’ll appreciate what governments and tax dollars can do when applied constructively.

            Also imagine how much more things would cost if all truck and bus traffic went on local roads instead of interstates. The deployment of the Interstate system led to an improvement in the U.S. economy from physical commerce that was comparable to the value the Internet helped unlock for online commerce.

            “Time was when we got on the bus to visit relatives.”

            Yes, and “time was” when I’d be responding to editorials with a letter and a stamp, and waiting days for the reply. Slower and more tedious does not always mean better.

          • Fergus Mason says:

            “maybe you’ve heard that some of the heavy equipment the Army uses can’t clear the viaducts.”

            The Indian Army have a similar problem: their Arjun tank can’t be rail-transported through a lot of thecountry because its flatcars won’t go through the tunnels. It’s for the same reason, too: manufacturers use lobbyists and bribes to change the specifications they were given by the government instead of just working to them. I hate lobbyists.

            “If the Army has a problem moving equipment over land, that’s what the Air Mobility Command is for”

            Ouch! No. Any idea how many flights it takes to move, say, a tank battalion? It’s not pretty. Heavy Army units have to be ground mobile.

            In any case, to move really heavy stuff by air the US military has to hire An-124s from Russia.

            “And I thought that progressives hated defense contractors.”

            Depends. I hate defence contractors who play pork-barrel politics. I loathe BAe Systems and the entire useless US defence industry. But I just love manufacturers like FN and Rheinmetall, and good PMCs.

  3. MDB says:

    As far as your arguments about fuel taxes and tolls… okay, consider my commute to and from work. (I’m going to simplify it some for these purposes.)

    I start out in a residential area, so we’d assume that, in your world, I’m paying for that road via my HOA dues. (Actually, I don’t have an HOA. I suppose I’m lucky. But in your world, I probably would.)

    I turn onto what’s currently some state roads. Perhaps in your world, they’d be maintained by the businesses alongside it, in hopes of attracting customers. But the stretch of the road I take is largely light industry (a sewage treatment plant and a UPS depot, for instance), not anything I’d directly patronize. They have no incentive to let me on there for free. So, do I stop to pay them a toll? Or do I have to find an alternate route?

    After that comes a long stretch that’s mostly residential.(Incidentally, most of my trip is through Montgomery County, MD. Generally pretty liberal politically — and a darn nice place to live.) In your world, does my HOA have some kind of reciprocity agreement with those HOA’s so I get to drive through there for “free”? Of course, there’s the delay at the gates as the toll official verifies that my HOA has the agreement with there’s. Yeah, that probably takes just a few seconds for them to look at my sticker or whatever… but then you have to wait in the line at rush hour. And unless you’ve got some kind of mega-HOA, I have to pass through a number of different neighborhoods, and repeat the process each time.

    I’m getting close to my office now. I stop off at Panera for my morning bagel. I have to turn onto their street. Okay, that’s a street with direct to consumer businesses. They’ve got reason to allow me to use their street for free. But do I have to prove I’m going to use a business on that street? How do they know I’m not using it just to take a shortcut to a restaurant on another street?

    Okay, I’ve got my bagel and I’m heading to the office now. Into an office park. I work there, so presumably my company is paying the building owner for us to drive on their streets — but again, how do they know I’m not just taking a shortcut? Perhaps I flash my company ID to the road officials — see the same commentary I made about residential roads above.

    The above scenario strikes me as insane. Instead, we pay for most roads via fuel taxes, under the assumption that the more fuel you use, the more you drive, and thus you’re paying somewhat proportionally to your usage of the roads. Yeah, there’s “outliers” — for instance, when I drive to Tennessee to visit my parents, I usually buy a tank of gas in Virginia. I’m probably paying way more in Virginia taxes than I am gaining in benefit from using their roads, but we just assume it balances out by, say, a Virginian who buys a tank of gas in Maryland on the way to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania or something.

    You see, that’s one of the reasons we have governments. Some things work more efficiently when they’re at the scale only something as large as a government can carry out.

    • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

      Yes, well you strike me as wanting a free ride. Of course, you don’t realize when the government that you think gives you a free ride, really robs you blind. How does it work out for you when the government raids the fuel tax revenues for projects that have nothing to do with highways? Or when they spend Highway Trust Fund monies only on the roads that the Big Names with Pull, or the Squeaky Wheels, travel? And what’re you gonna do—see how Squeaky a Wheel you can be? Doesn’t all that Squeaking get a little hard on the old pipes?

      And about the last example you gave: what happens when the cars have such a long range between fill-ups that you don’t even have to fill up for the longest time? What happens when Maryland and West Virginia both realize that they’re getting shortchanged whenever anyone uses Interstate Highway 81 to travel from Pennsylvania to, say, Virginia Tech?

      You’re also being disingenuous. Do you think I have forgotten about the new plan to use GPS monitoring devices and charge you directly by the mile, and highly specifically, too? Maybe you want the government to handle that. I don’t. Because that violates my Fourth Amendment right to freedom and security of the person. That’s another reason to get the government out of the street and road and highway business.

      • MDB says:

        So, you don’t think the loudest voice would still have the most pull in your world? (Loudest probably being wealthiest.)

        You used snow removal as an example. Your average neighborhood isn’t going to own a snow removal system, especially if you live in part of the country that might get really heavy snows once in a decade or something. They’re going to contract for it. Now, with average snows, you’ll be all right. But when you get that once-a-decade huge snow, the contractor’s resources are going to be strained. And the neighborhoods that pay the most, including possibly offering “immediate bonuses” (effectively a bribe) will get plowed first. Now, you can say that the same is true with government snow removal, but at least the government gives attention to things like neighborhoods with elderly or critically ill residents who need roads plowed because they might need an ambulance. (I have a cousin who’s a cancer patient. She lives in a very rural area. The government airlifted her to a hospital when she got hit with some extreme weather while undergoing chemotherapy.)

        You suggest shovel brigades in an emergency, but what about neighborhoods that are mostly elderly people?

        Your counter-example to my example still doesn’t address my basic point that it will all roughly balance out in the end. State to state trips are the outliers. Most people drive most of the time roughly where they buy their gas. I could probably save a few cents/gallon if I drove from central Maryland to Virginia to buy my gas, but it’s not worth the time (and my savings would be eaten up by the gas I burn on the trip.)

        I looked up the GPS monitoring proposal. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicle_miles_traveled_tax) It strikes me as an academic proposal that’s been batted around a few circles, and that’s being used by commentators to fan fear.

  4. nicosb says:

    Just a quick thought…could you do something about the background to the ballot question? The second question always appears as white text on a white background, making it very difficult to read.
    Nicos B

  5. DinsdaleP says:

    “In short, this is another quibble. The solution always would be a contract with the Army.”

    First off, in your Ayn Rand world the Army would have to contract with every single property/road owner – there’s no single entity to negotiate with.

    Second, I’ve already pointed out that with no Interstates, and the remaining road management left to individuals, the likely condition of the roads will be so uneven from stretch to stretch that it’ll quickly devolve to the same conditions that prompted Eisenhower to act in the first place.

    Finally, if the roads were so unsuitable that bulk supplies had to be moved by air as you suggest, watch the cost of routine military material transfers skyrocket when rail is not an option. Not the smartest use of a military budget, and the nations that invest in their basic transport infrastructure will always have that competitive edge over our economy.

    • Fergus Mason says:

      “the nations that invest in their basic transport infrastructure will always have that competitive edge over our economy.”

      It may not be a coincidence that Germany has an excellent transport infrastructure and manages to export more than the USA does despite having a quarter of the population.

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